Even the marmots are bold on Mt. Baker. Camped at Sandy Camp, on the southern flanks of the mountain alongside the Easton Glacier, we watch a marmot fearlessly trot away from the safety of an exposed rock pile, across open snow, and straight into our camp. They’re groundhog like creatures, except bigger, and with a thick streak of silvery gray, lashed like a saddle across the middle of their back. If the marmots are bold, the people I’m with are just as much so. We’re here for a weeklong mountaineering school as we each hope to gain the skills for bigger climbs in the Himalaya, Alaska, Europe, or South America. At the end of our training we’ll make a push to the summit practicing what we’ve learned along the way.
Mt. Baker is the epitome of fire and ice. It is less than 20 miles south as the crow flies from the Canadian border in Washington State. An active volcano, it’s sulfury steam can be smelled as you approach the summit, but it is also one of the snowiest places on earth, receiving almost 100 feet of snow in a single winter. An environment of extremes, the snow is frozen hard on some mornings of our stay, while being slushy and frustratingly punchy on others.
It is this challenge, this frustration, which makes the time rewarding. I once wrote; “I think we can all benefit from what we might call “experiences of vastness”, to be reminded that we are small, to know our proper place in the universe, and to each other”. The mountains, like the night sky, open prairies, deep canyons, and ocean horizons can give us a glimpse of this vastness, but it is in the mountains, with 100 mile and 100 peak views that have always made me feel the smallest and most vulnerable.
After several days of training on crampon, ice axe, rope, and crevasse rescue techniques we wake up at 1:30 a.m. for our march to the summit. The climb is lit by the glow of a dozen headlamps, each of us trudging upward toward the dim beacon in front of us. It’s cold, and the clouds have moved in washing our view in a thick white curtain of cotton. We push onward, off the snowfield and onto the glaciated crevasse wrecked slopes that lead upward towards the summit. We rope up into teams of four and continue our ascent. An ember somewhere beyond the horizon casts light into our whitewashed world sometime around 4 a.m..
Moving further up the mountain the wind rises, driving a chill beneath our layers that bites when we stop for a break to eat an energy bar, some jerky or nuts, or perhaps some manchego cheese? It’s 8:06 a.m. and my back drips with sweat yet a short break requires that I suite up with more layers. I’m cold.
Fifteen minutes later we’re on the move again, but with the wind increasing and clouds still not dissipating another team of climbers that had been following our tracks through the whiteout finally turns back around 10 a.m.. They’ve lost hope in the weather, it doesn’t’ appear to be improving, yet we press onward.
At 9 a.m. we arrive at the final push towards the summit, up a steep punchy field of snow. Our boots, armored with sharp tipped crampons struggle to make sense of the deceiving slope of loose crystallized snow. Carrying our own weight and the weight of our packs our steps slip and drive through the crystal surface, sometimes dropping us knee deep into wells of frustrating crystal. This is the hardest part for me. The going is slow and effort-full.
Finally at 9:16 a.m. our ascent begins to carry us up beyond the clouds and out of the white for the first time. At 9:38 there’s just a wisp of white remaining with us, and finally at 9:40 a.m. we emerge onto the summit slope, a perfect blue sky above us, and the thick white clouds we’d climbed through below. The group stops for a break and I fall to my knee’s on the summit slope, the moment captured by a fellow climber (above). After a rest and unbuckling from our rope teams we make the short walk up to the true summit. It’s now 10:27 and I raise my arms, ice axe in hand, and shout “WHHOOO”! It feels surprisingly good and satisfying to stand here. Just a year ago I had to turn back at 13,100 feet on Mt. Rainier due to weather, to now finally reach summit after another such endeavor strikes me with more emotion than I had anticipated.
I couldn’t help but think of the events and efforts that brought me here. Like everyone that day we had made choices and commitments to get to this moment. Each of our reasons was different, but here we found ourselves with a common experience, I think. Inspiration.
By 2:30 we’ll be back at camp. 11 hours of ascent and descent. Some things that I carried up that mountain I left there, emotions, doubts, a little bit of worry and with me I brought down new dreams for the future, and new visions for how to convey this wildscape into the works and pieces of Native Range.
What does all this mean for my work with Native Range? Most of the pieces in the NR collection are what I would call “mountain” art. When an artist creates a likeness of something he ought to get to know his subject as intimately as possible, if he is searching for the truth. Edgar Degas said “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”. Leading up to this climb I created a piece named “Moon Over Mountains”, which was inspired by my preparation for this climb. It was similar to many of my previous pieces, which until now have been symmetrical and angular, tame in some regard, cartoonish in its simplicity. Yet I found Mt. Baker to be awful (not in a terrible sense, but in the awe inspiring sense, something capable of inspiring both admiration and dread). The mountains are ancient, jagged, strewn with both beauty and monstrousness, infused with fire yet covered in ice, scared by upheaval from beneath and marred by atmospheric forces from above. Atop them, in a brief moment of triumph, one completes a journey through this truth, seeing both their fairness and their dreadfulness. Pablo Picasso said that “art is a lie”. If I can find a way to make others see the wild truth of the mountains through a piece inspired by this trip then perhaps it will be only half a lie, and perhaps I will have learned one of the many lessons Mt. Baker had to teach. DOWNLOAD ALL 319 PICS HERE (ZIP FILE)